Like every other Athenian, I go to the grocery stores often. Not every day, but close to it. The smaller size of our kitchen and, for many folks, the diminutive size of refrigerators in these parts makes essential a regular return to the grocer. Recently, I was returning from such an errand, loaded down with my permanent, ecologically-conscious grocery bag and also carrying several of the earth-polluting, small plastic bags. On my back and over my shoulder, I carried a web-sack of tangerines.
Those semi-tart and sometimes sweet, but not-so-juicy tangerines with their built-in easy-open outer skin and convenient servable pieces (We had something similar in Mississippi where I grew up; we called them satsumas!) serve as great in-between-meal snacks and make me believe I am eating something healthy for a change. On this particularly cold winter day, I was hobbling along on the sidewalk at the top of one of the hills in the business section near our place.
I could see her ahead, sitting on the sidewalk, holding her baby. This Roma (Gypsy) mother of no more than sixteen years routinely sits on her behind on the cold pavement, with legs folded in front of her, one forearm cradling a nearly newborn and the other arm extended, her cupped hand begging for Euro coins. This is her family’s preferred space to beg. I suppose it’s a good location, what with the generous population of middle-class Greeks who walk by each day and the higher-than-average percentage of retired folks who live in the neighborhood.
I was prepared to focus on keeping my precarious, nearly seventy-year-old balance, to shift the weight of my many packages and to resist eye-contact as I walked by, towering over her from my six-foot position of “superiority.” I always struggle with the tension between helping to feed a hungry baby and not wanting to co-depend and enable a subtle system that perpetuates both poverty and the over-population that aids and abets it. Like most “sophisticated” people on the street, I have perfected the skill of largely ignoring the woman-child and her baby and just walking on by.
No more than twenty feet from her, my web-bag broke, spilling thirty-nine tangerines on the sidewalk! Wish you could have seen those tennis ball-sized, rolling, orange, fruit balls as they spread out on the sidewalk and commenced, PacMan style, to chase each other down the incline! Everybody took notice! My fellow pedestrians just stepped aside, allowing the rolling fruit to gain momentum, rapidly descending the hill.
For the first time ever, I saw the face of the little begging mother on the street. Normally, she keeps her head and eyes down; only occasionally does she look up into the glazed-over eyes of the people passing by, pleading both with her words and with her face. But, with thirty-nine cascading citrus balls rapidly rolling her way, in terror, she looked up.
And, then, she did the expected thing. With her free hand and her legs, she began to corral those run-away satsumas and draw them into her skirt and other unmentionable portions of her body, now mostly spread flat on the ground. With dexterity and rapidity, she rescued every one of them, allowing none to get through her hastily-arranged fruit-dike.
Well – then and there, I decided that I was making a “generous” donation of fruit to her hungry family!